Scripture: John 15:1-17
Sermon: “SABBATICAL LEARNINGS: Pruning” by Pastor Todd Buurstra
The purpose of sabbatical is to climb a mountain to sit on the front porch and overlook your forest so that you can see it for the trees. Looking down on my forest, the thing I most frequently saw was my orchard being pruned. The passage I’ve lived with was John 15. And my image has been God approaching us with pruning shears–yikes!
For instance, the sawing I hear on individual branches sounds like this:
FINANCES: 1) No honey, we’re going to eat home tonight—gotta save money.
2) Gee, my 401K has still not recovered after two years!
3) Year #2 of Staycation. Sorry!
FAITH: 1) Why do I have to go to church? All of my friends can sleep in!
2) Football for Billy; Church for all of us; Football, church. Football, church. Ah, church isn’t that important anymore anyway.
3) All the church wants is my money!
What is God doing with pruning shears in hand as he comes toward us?
Now there are at least two typical reactions of we branches to pruning shears:
1) lay low, keep quiet, and hope that the pruner misses you. In other words, try to avoid pruning. We usually do that by playing the victim. Or, if you can’t avoid being pruned,
2) then get grafted into another vine (which, in the spiritual realm, is usually sick already).
First, our natural reaction is to try to avoid being pruned by avoiding its lessons while playing the victim. Woe is me! The rotten bank is foreclosing on me. Or, my evil boss always had it in for me. Or, Pastor Todd’s sermons are boring so that I don’t get anything out of them anyway. Or… You tell me. Now, some, or even much of this may be true, but quietly stewing on our victimhood only helps us to die on the vine quicker. Honestly, I find myself playing the victim in this way, Why couldn’t I have been a pastor in the 60s/70s when people were still thronging to church?! I’m just not very good at this evangelism thing. Victimhood separates us from Jesus. Separated [from Jesus] you..
The second typical reaction is to get grafted into another vine. We call this idola-try or addiction. Grafted from church to porn, from money to booze etc. Newsweek says:
Rosalind Dorlen, a Summit, N.J., therapist who sees both Wall Street clients and patients unconnected to the financial industry, says she’s seen a growth of alcohol abuse among clients who have never had drinking problems before.
Jesus says, Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. Getting grafted into the vines of alcohol, etc., is a destructive obsession.
But we need to stop and take a good look at the Vine before we run. I AM the vine… is one of Jesus’ 7 (the number of fullness) I AM statements in John. His readers, many of whom had the OT memorized, would recognize the image of the vine as an image of Israel. So Jesus is saying, As your Messiah, I AM the true Israel. In other words, I AM your heritage and your destiny. I AM all you have been and ever can be.
So this Vine Jesus is life-giving to make us healthy. Nine times Jesus tells us to menein, translated as abide, remain, live in him. Living in Jesus means to draw on his word or guidance and power. Living in Jesus means to bring every problem or possibility to him in prayer. Basically its Jesus’ life flowing in and through us.
Then the pruning shears are to help us get more nourishment from the vine to bear greater fruit. How so? FINANCES Maybe Jesus is telling us to focus less on our 401 Ks and more on what money is for. Less on needs and more on wants. Less debt, more savings. And for those desperately seeking a job, to find some peace and support in your storm. FAITH Maybe Jesus is giving us stamina to go against the culture’s grain (easier to be a Christian when many more were). Or to share our faith so that the faith blossoms.
In other words, God prunes, which cuts us back for now, so that we can be more fruitful in the future. If we make good use of this recession, like we did the Depression, America can merge more prosperous in the future. If the declining church can learn to stand up and reach out, we may again become a powerful, positive force in America.
At RWJUH a pair of sisters taught me the meaning of God’s pruning for greater fruit. Thumbonella is a dying cancer patient whose sister Janice lovingly stands beside her. They lost their mother at 5. Then their dad worked hard to keep the family and his 10 kids together, but he got overwhelmed and took to drink. The courts forced the kids to go to an aunt in GA who mistreated them. They were black kids in the Jim Crow South to begin with, and she wouldn’t feed them! So Thumbonella would have to steal food from her aunt’s kitchen to feed Janice and the younger kids. Eventually the older brothers in NY could take in Thumbonella and Janice. Later the brother that took in Thumbonella suffered kidney disease so Thumbonella donated a kidney. Th married a loser though she tried real hard to make it work. Eventually he left her with two kids. Th worked hard for her kids all of her life, denying herself to put them through college. Th had a lot of pruning in her life!! But her life also bore much fruit. Th would always gather the family with J on holidays, and yet cook even more for the homeless. Th and J have a strong, strong faith in Jesus. One symptom of denying herself was that she never had insurance so she always went to free clincs. As she aged breathing became difficult. The clinic docs kept treating her for asthma, until finally they realized that the cause was cancer that had spread from her remaining kidney. J can’t bear to lose her, but the fruit of her pruned faith is that as we pray for Jesus to take her, J and Th say through tears, “Yes, Jesus.”